Ventura County's addiction to hard drugs
A sobering report on the local meth and heroin trade
By Butch Warner 07/29/2010
In a Hollywoodlike scenario that involved gangsters with names like “Cuini,” “Kong” and “Mingo,” Mexican police arrested José Antonio Medina Arreguin, also known as “Don Pepe,” late in March. This “King of Heroin” was allegedly responsible for shipping record amounts of methamphetamine and heroin into Oxnard and Ventura.
The arrest, on a warrant issued in Ventura County and spearheaded by a crack coalition of drug cops called VCAT (Ventura County Combined Agency Team), underscored what veteran Ventura addicts and law enforcement people have known for years: that there is a “Mexican Connection,” often with Mexican Mafia and gang ties, that is responsible for most of the heroin and much of the methamphetamine being consumed in Ventura County.
Once, heroin was a drug you could mostly expect to find in Oxnard. Today, there is a whole new heroin culture, one that crosses class boundaries and includes addicts from Montalvo to La Colonia.
And there is a whole culture of meth addicts in Ventura comprising Mexicans, affluent whites and gays, where once meth was considered a “white trash” drug.
Addiction to these two drugs affects almost every facet of life in Ventura County. Families are torn apart by it. Marriages are built on addiction, and then inevitably destroyed.
Drug abuse and addiction are responsible for most of the incarcerations and the vast majority of crime in Ventura County, according to authorities and studies. The cost to the county is in the tens of millions of dollars.
Drug fads in the VC
Like hemlines and jeans, drugs in Ventura County go in and out of fashion. A former heroin addict who calls himself Cornboy says, “When I was locked up in County (the Ventura County jail system) in 1998, all the cholos (gang types) from Oxnard were heroin addicts, and all the white skinheads and rednecks from Ventura, Simi and Thousand Oaks were tweakers (meth addicts). The rich kids were into cocaine.”
“Five years ago it was completely reversed, with Mexicans into meth and rich kids into heroin. Now it’s heroin and Oxycontin for Mexicans and rich whites, especially the rich kids. There’s still a lot of meth, but it’s gotten expensive for whites.”
Matt Cain, a detective in Ventura County, works street-level narcotics. “The two drugs responsible for the most crime in Ventura County are heroin and meth,” he said. “The heroin is black tar, and it’s mostly from Mexico, and it’s gotten cheaper. It’s simple supply and demand.”
Ten years ago, most people admitted into rehab in Ventura County were heroin users, according to data from the county’s behavioral health division. Five years ago, meth prevailed.
“Our experience has been that the heroin has never really gone out of fashion,” says Dr. Atman Reyes, psychiatrist at Aurora Vista Del Mar Hospital, a rehab facility in Ventura. “We still get a lot of meth addicts, too, although it’s not nearly the number we treated five years ago. What you have to remember is that these drugs are not mutually exclusive — for addicts, a stimulant like crystal meth is the perfect complement to a CNS (central nervous system) depressant like heroin.”
The much reviled “black tar” heroin from Mexican poppy fields is the predominant “brand” of heroin in Southern California.
Detective Cain says, “Heroin use declined for a while, but then the price dropped and it’s back up again. Ironically, the meth is getting cheaper, too, probably because a lot of it is Mexican.”
“Increased heroin availability evidenced by higher purity, lower prices, and elevated numbers of heroin overdoses is partly attributable to increased production in Mexico from 17 pure metric tons in 2007 to 38 pure metric tons in 2008,” according to the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center.
Local law enforcement officials say they’ve been hearing from arrested dealers since at least 2003 that the heroin they’re selling is coming from Michoacán, especially near the city of Apatzingán de la Constitución.
Mexican authorities say José Arreguin was allegedly responsible for importing 5,280 pounds of heroin a year, more than three times all the heroin seized annually along U.S. borders.
When Mexican authorities arrested José Antonio Medina Arreguin last month, they referred to him as “Don Pepe” and the “King of Heroin.” He was also suspected of being responsible for a large amount of the methamphetamine being run into Southern California.
If the monthly amount is accurate, that would total 5,280 pounds a year, more than three times all the heroin seized annually along U.S. borders, according to federal drug enforcement figures.
Heroin in Ventura County
While crystal meth has traditionally been a domestic product in Ventura, heroin has mostly been linked to Mexico.
Black tar heroin, for the most part, is what users in Ventura County get, although China white (a white, more powderlike version more available on the East Coast) heroin and other purer Asian and African strains make it into the supply now and then.
When you talk about heroin in Ventura County, you’re usually talking about Oxnard, particularly the once-notorious La Colonia. The north to south boundaries are Camino del Sol to Third Street, and the west to east boundaries are Oxnard Boulevard (Highway 1) to Rose Avenue. Long a Latino barrio, it is home to lower-income families, César Chávez memorials and the popular La Colonia Youth Boxing Club, which has produced notable fighters such as Fernando Vargas, Roberto Garcia and Victor Ortíz. There, black tar heroin imported from Mexico (and sometimes with “Mexican Mafia” ties) has been the rule.
Heroin addicts often report making transactions with young (sometimes as young as 10 years old) Mexican drug dealers, who store “balloons” of heroin in their mouths and dispense the product on foot or bicycle.
How heroin works
Heroin is in a class of drugs called opiates, and it is extracted from the seeds of the poppy. It’s usually smoked or injected. Like other opiates, heroin is a sedative drug that slows body functioning and reduces the perception of pain.
In fact, it’s the best painkiller known to man.
Opiates act on the most primitive part of our brains, sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain” because we share it with reptiles. The lizard brain focuses on survival, and it’s responsible for pain and fear. Users describe a feeling of warmth, relaxation and detachment, with a lessening sense of anxiety. Initial use can result in nausea and vomiting, but these reactions fade with regular use.
Ironically, heroin probably causes less physical damage to the body than any other drug. The true danger of heroin use, besides that fact that it is viciously addictive, is the very real probability of death by overdose, especially when it’s mixed with other drugs like cocaine and benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax.
While the “gateway drug” theory (the idea that using soft drugs usually leads to hard drugs) for the most part is pure, unproven balderdash, there is a gateway effect that operates with heroin. There is undeniably a link between the current easy availability of prescription opiates like Oxycontin and Norco. These drugs are being abused at “alarming levels” in Ventura County, according to Detective Cain, and because they are chemical siblings to heroin, users often graduate to the harder drug when their “Dr. Feelgood” closes down or their street connection gets arrested.
“When you’re addicted to Oxycontin and your connection goes away, you’re not going to just stop using. Heroin is actually cheaper, and connections are easy to find if you’re desperate enough,” says Sam Usher, an addiction therapist at Pasadena Recovery Center. Heroin has recently gone from “over $400 an ounce to about $100 an ounce,” according to sources.
Crystal meth in Ventura County
Methamphetamine (or speed, crystal meth, crank, ice) has a colorful and notorious reputation in California and Ventura County. There used to be an old saying in Ventura — “The Avenue be havin’ you.” This old saw refers to Ventura Avenue, which was once a hotbed of crystal meth and prostitution. Today, speed is everywhere, from the barrios of Oxnard to the hills near Ventura’s City Hall.
Tweakers (speed freaks) are everywhere, too, but the old stereotype of the furtive, shifty, trailer trash dwelling, dime bag selling, porn film watching, sucked-up (skinny), snaggle-toothed bundle of nerves is no longer accurate. Young kids from good homes and sophisticated gays have joined the fray, as meth has become the ultimate “study drug,” diet pill and sex potion. But in the end, speed rots the teeth, ravages the nervous system, causes dramatic weight loss and malnutrition, erodes social skills and causes impotence.
Methamphetamine may not be as physically addicting as heroin or Oxycontin, but it’s axiomatic in the drug world that meth equals instant criminal. Heroin users do often resort to crime, but usually because they’re so dopesick that they will do anything, including robbing their best friends, to get “well.” Methamphetamine, on the other hand, seems to creep into core values and morals so that the user loses the capacity for remorse and virtue.
Even in sleepy little Ventura County, meth has acquired, in the last 10 years, a whole new audience: gay men. The drug is used for its ability to keep weight down and to reduce sensitivity, increase blood flow to the penis, and increase endurance, all factors that combine to make it a powerful sex drug, enabling marathon sex. Meth addiction combined with sex addiction has become a real problem in the gay community, and meth is at least partially responsible for recent spikes in HIV statistics. According to Dr. James Dilley, Director of the AIDS Health Project at the University of California, San Francisco, “Crystal meth is the newest and most important threat to the HIV epidemic in the U.S.”
What exactly is meth?
Methamphetamine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant. The drug works directly on the brain and spinal cord to stimulate dopamine and to “highjack” our reward system. After prolonged use of meth, natural rewards like sex and food pale by comparison.
Although many tweakers believe that Hitler’s scientists developed meth, a precursor of methamphetamine was actually synthesized by Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu in 1887. In 1919, the drug with the name methamphetamine was synthesized by Japanese scientist Akura Ogata, and it was then forgotten for the next four decades. Amphetamines are great drugs — for about two weeks. Prescription stimulants have been referred to as “study drugs,” and they do help, on a short-term basis, with alertness and retention. In fact, armies all over the world have long been using speed to help their soldiers stay alert. In addition, meth and other forms of speed are the ultimate diet pills.
But methamphetamine has a high potential for abuse and dependence. It is illegally produced and sold in pill form, capsules, powder and chunks. In the late1970s, methamphetamine became a Schedule II drug, restricting its use to almost nothing; today, its cousins like Adderall and Dexedrine are used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD.
After a couple of weeks, speed starts to warp the personality, create anxiety and a false sense of urgency, and cause users to do stupid things. Long-term abusers often end up toothless, homeless or in jail, because speed eventually distorts judgment in matters of eating, hygiene and personal responsibility.
Bikers and meth
No discussion of methamphetamine in these parts would be complete without mentioning biker clubs. The history of crystal meth is inextricably linked with the biker culture in Ventura County.
Bikers in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s used and manufactured meth, and it became part and parcel of the extreme, violent biker lifestyle that Marlon Brando, James Dean and Dennis Hopper romanticized. Street speed manufactured by gangs of outlaw bikers became the norm. It was easy to make and cheap to buy. Huge barrels of noxious chemicals like ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, red phosphorous and hydrochloric acid unleashed a foul smell throughout the desert.
Police pressure and public awareness, fueled by events like the Altamont Concert (where alleged Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro was filmed killing an audience member) drove the bikers out of urban areas into the deserts, north and south. And until a few years ago, that was the story of crystal meth — bikers and the desert.
Renewed crackdowns by federal, state and municipal police weakened the biker culture, but age dealt it a crippling blow. (It was a crackdown on drug-dealing motorcycle gangs that cleaned up Main Street in Ventura and set the stage for the city’s rebirth.)
Mick B., a Ventura resident and former Vagos motorcycle club member, has been clean and sober for almost two years and no longer rides with the club. “It’s not like it used to be for the guys who are still affiliated — the Feds and the state guys are getting ingenious at infiltrating the clubs. There was a time when you could trust everybody, but no more. So a lot of the old guys are not so active, and the young guys are not so loyal.”
Today’s outlaw biker is older and wiser, and has probably spent a lot of time in prison. Although the outlaw biker culture is still breathing, it is no longer the romantic and financial force it once was.
The Mexican connection
Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten says Arreguin “operated with the blessings of La Familia,” a cartel that controls the western state of Michoacán, which Michoacán is the eye of the drug violence typhoon that is now devastating Mexico. This year alone, more than 400 people have died from drug violence in Michoacán, best known to travelers as the place where monarch butterflies winter. Mexican intelligence officials believe that at least 65,000 people in Michoacán live off the drug trade in some way, and these drugs are finding their way to Ventura County.
In Arreguin’s case, large shipments of drugs — around 500 pounds worth at least $12 million — were allegedly transported in secret compartments of vehicles. And this is only a drop in the bucket. Officials say Arreguin’s alleged network of distributors sold black tar heroin and methamphetamine “from San Diego to San Jose.”
“With meth today, you’ve got the Mexican connection, especially in Oxnard,” says Mick B. “The Mexicans have access to ephedrine, as opposed to pseudoephedrine, which means thatv the stuff coming out of Mexico is purer and cheaper.
You get a richer yield from ephedrine — 85 percent to 90 percent — as opposed to a 65 percent yield from Sudafed.
All the border towns, like Mexicali, Tijuana and Calexico, are full of this cheap, pure crystal meth. It’s like San Diego in the ’80s down there, like the Wild West of speed.”
In Mexico, meth factories churn out record amounts of methamphetamine, which has become the biggest growth area for cartels south of the border. Authorities in Ventura have known for several years that the cartels were gaining strength in the meth trade, taking over a business that used to be run by biker gangs.
A lab busted in June 2009 near Culiacan, Mexico, is estimated to have produced 40 tons of meth, worth some $1.4 billion on Ventura County streets. It is, to date, the largest operation of its kind to be busted in North or South America.
With unlimited rural areas, a drug culture that is actually more powerful than the authorities, and millions of people poor enough to risk anything for a buck, the drug connection to Ventura County will inevitably centralize in Mexico.
The truth about the Mexican Mafia
Is there really a “Mexican Mafia” that routes drugs to Ventura County, or is the idea the vainglorious pipe dream of drug-addled dealers, gang members and users?
The Mexican Mafia is not really Mexican, but, make no mistake, it is real. And it is inextricably linked to the heroin and meth trade in Ventura County.
Its leaders may not look like Marlon Brando and they may not (yet) have enough influence in the U.S. to buy senators and restructure entire states like Nevada, but the Mexican Mafia exists and is responsible for most of the drug trade in Ventura County.
The Mexican Mafia is one of the oldest and most powerful prison gangs in the United States. It was started more than 50 years ago by Chicano street gang members incarcerated at Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI), a state prison located in San Joaquin County, California. The MM originally comprised young gang members from L.A. gangs, and the man who is credited as the founder of the gang was Luis “Huero Buff” (loosely, “light-skinned and muscular”) Flores, a member of the Hawaiian Gardens Gang. The cons who laid the groundwork for the gang called themselves Mexikanemi, which is a Central Mexican dialect word that means “he who walks with God in his heart.”
While gang members claimed that the Mexican Mafia was founded “to show reverence to our Aztec and Maya heritage,” its primary purpose was for Mexicans in prison to protect each other from crooked guards and white and black prison gangs. Deuel Vocational Institution actually became a prison training ground, where inmates could hone their skills in fighting, dealing drugs and making and buying weapons.
In the late 1960s, after a bloody internal rift, a new gang calling itself Nuestra Familia developed. Most of the Nuestra Familia members were from Northern California, and the remaining Mexican Mafia members were from Southern California. Today, the two groups are called Nortenos, a Spanish word for Northerners, or Surenos, Spanish for Southerners.
Will it ever end?
It could be a while — “weeks, months or years,” according to Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Wright — before Mexico’s “King of Heroin” is extradited to Ventura County, where the drug charges could put him in state prison for as much as 29 years. But the jury is out on whether the arrest will put a dent in “The Mexican Connection” to Ventura County.
George (Butch) Warner, MA, IMF, CADC, is an addiction and music therapist in Pasadena and Studio City.